Re-using textile fabrics could drastically reduce freshwater microfiber plastic pollution, CDP report find

A CDP report on the textile industry suggests supply side reform could dramatically reduce capital outlay on managing groundwater pollution liability and minimising wastage, through more recycling and circular economy measures.

Microfiber plastics can pollute the freshwater supplies that utility companies rely on. According to the CDP report, “The washing of synthetic textiles is considered to be the primary source of microplastics in the aquatic environment, accounting for approximately 35% of all microplastics released globally.”

The washing of 1 kilogram of synthetic garments can release between 640,000–1,500,000 microfibers. Moreover it was recently discovered that microplastics can enter and accumulate in human body tissue, although the health implications are not yet known. What is certain is that toxic substances used in textile production, such as perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), organotins, and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), are absorbed by microfibers and thus are released and proliferate in the aquatic environment.

A data map compiled by the World Bank suggests that pollution can reduce economic potential of downstream areas by up to one third. * Other pollutants include salt, as in for example India where high groundwater salinity from irrigated agriculture is responsible for 20% of infant mortality rates across coastal regions; and nitrogen from agricultural fertilizers, which as a water supply contaminant can lead to oxygen deprivation in newborn infants, the so-called ‘blue baby’ syndrome.**

In the World Bank’s thermal imaging map of global water contamination, the UK with the exclusion of parts of Scotland and Northern Ireland is firmly in the red. There are three indicators of water pollution: nitrogen levels (nitrite-nitrate); electrical conductivity, a measure of salinity in water; and biological oxygen demand (BOD), the most widely used proxy for water quality.

“When the BOD level of surface water is at a level at which rivers are considered heavily polluted (exceeding 8 milligrams per liter), GDP growth in downstream regions is lowered by a third,” states the report, ‘Quality Unknown, the Invisible Water Crisis’.

What is the Solution?

The EU Strategy for Textiles is expected to be released in 2021, but judging by the EC’s current policy emphasis and direction e.g. the New Circular Economy Action Plan, it is likely to stress recycling and sustainable water usage. A number of companies are working with the CDP supply chain program to identify risks and highlight opportunities for pollution reduction; additionally the Alliance for Water Stewardship’s Standard (AWS Standard) can provide guidelines for water stewardship best practice across the supply chain.

As regards water pollution, 18 apparel and textile sector respondents identified 34 opportunities with a material upside to reducing water pollution within their value chain, with the estimated financial benefits for 15 of these opportunities having a reported combined value of US$184million.

Eight companies identified that reducing the water pollution impact across the value chain would mean they could target products towards consumers with a more sustainable mindset, giving them a competitive edge over peers with a less comprehensive policy on their pollution footprint.

“Burberry Group identified that through increasing its procurement of recycled cotton it is able to increase its resilience to fluctuations in the cost of cotton due to future water scarcity. Adidas noted that through investments in recycled polyester it is able to position itself as a leader in innovation, increase its preparedness to face future challenges and risks in a more informed and resilient way, and improve brand image.

Gap Inc. recognised that the purchasing decisions of consumers are shifting towards more sustainable products. As a result of this Gap Inc. are ensuring that sustainability, including reduction in water pollution, is embedded into product design, raw material selection and wet processing techniques and that each brand is committed to communicating their sustainability goals, values and actions to their consumers” stated the CDP 2020 apparel report,

INTERWOVEN RISKS,UNTAPPED OPPORTUNITIES The business case for tackling water pollution in apparel and textile value chains

“We consider regulators in our risk assessments, as they are our first interface with local and international regulations. Our Code of Vendor Conduct requires, and our factory assessment process checks for, full compliance with country and local environmental laws and regulations” GAP


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